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The Libyan Government Just Gave Up, Then Changed Its Mind, Maybe

Libya's interim cabinet said on Tuesday that it would quit and go home, a claim quickly countered by the country's embattled parliament.

by Alice Speri
Apr 8 2014, 6:35pm

Photo via Reuters

It’s not been a great few months for the government in Tripoli.

Libyan officials — who have been facing challenges to their authority from federalist groups on every side of the country — have struggled to regain control of oil fields and ports seized by rebels.

In March, protesters calling for the resignation of the General National Congress (GNC) stormed the building, tried to light in on fire, and shot two congressmen. A few days later, congress sacked Prime Minister Ali Zeidan over his failure to reign in the rebels — and after an embarrassing blunder involving a North Koreanflagged tanker packed with oil that left a rebel-held port and fled into international waters right under the nose of Libyan authorities (before being captured again by Tripoli’s American friends).

Libya’s Prime Minister is embarrassed by rebels, then ousted by parliament.

On Monday, protesters upset over the slow pace of change in the country set tires on fire on the road leading to Tripoli’s airport. Then on Tuesday, Libyan state news agency LANA as well as Libyan and other Arab television networks reported that the entire cabinet had quit over a disagreement with parliament.

But not so fast.

Parliamentary spokesman Omar Hmeidan reportedly told the state news agency that the cabinet "had submitted a conditional resignation" — refusing to continue to work after a request to parliament for more powers and a longer mandate had been rejected.

'The government doesn’t really have a grip on things that really make it a government.'

But a cabinet spokesman quickly countered the report with a different version of the facts.

"The government is working normally,” Ahmed Lamim told Reuters. “But there was a letter sent to the General National Congress saying the government needs more authority to work."

Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni — who was appointed after his predecessor was sacked, and given a temporary mandate that needs to be renewed every two weeks — was reconfirmed to the temporary position on Tuesday, winning over candidates favored by different parliamentary blocs. He was given one week to form a new government — a job that the daily Libya Herald claimed he is "reluctant" to take on.

“A few days of extensions don't help,” Lamim said.

But the confrontation between parliament and the temporary cabinet is unlikely to end anytime soon. In a tit-for-tat largely reflective of the state of the country's government, Al-Thinni was told by a member of parliament that his cabinet is “just a caretaker government with no right to make any decisions,” to which he replied by threatening to resign unless he is given the power to actually run the country.

The infighting and contradictory reports are hardly a good sign for Libya, which — hobbled by its government’s failure to gain control over the armed militias that helped topple the regime of Muammar Gaddafi — has been quickly plunging into chaos.

Libya’s congress might have found a momentary scapegoat in ousted Prime Minister Zeidan, but if Monday’s developments are any indication, the new temporary government is not doing all that well either.

“It’s not been a very stable time for the GNC. They’re not very popular,” Anas el Gomati, a political analyst and the founder of Libya’s Sadeq Institute, told VICE News in March. “Many militias have been in charge of various strategic areas: the ports, the airports, the oil installations, which is the economic backbone of this country. The government doesn’t really have a grip on things that really make it a government.”

If anyone is gaining anything from this latest impasse, it may just be the rebels themselves.

Just on Monday, the government announced that after months of threats, it had reached a deal with militias controlling the Barqa region, in the country’s east, to reopen oil ports there that rebels have occupied for eight months — at a cost of about $7 billion in lost oil revenue.

The rebels — who have grand ambitions of political recognition, federalism, and shared revenue — heralded the deal as a victory.

“For us, as the autonomy movement in Cyrenaica, our voice now is well heard even on the table of the international community,” Osama Buera, a founding member of the federalist Cyrenaica Political Committee, the political wing of the rebel group controlling Libya’s Barqa region, told VICE News. “Now it’s time for us to move towards more political activity.”

With the government in Tripoli ready to quit any minute, that might just work out for them.

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter:@alicesperi